This is an historic day for the North American bra industry, one that should be marked on the calendar with a big, red ‘O’.
That’s ‘O’ for Oprah, the culture-shaping media maven who more than anyone else created the modern bra shopping experience that most women are familiar with today.
It was 10 years ago, on May 20, 2005, that Oprah declared: “Women of America, you need to rise up and get a proper bra fitting!” With those words, a bra revolution had begun … and an industry was transformed.
The occasion was the talk show host’s first televised “bra intervention”, a campy hour of embarrassing confessions laced with boob jokes and enough double entendres to fill a G cup. But it was hilarity with a higher purpose: demystifying the science and engineering behind bras and debunking myths and misconceptions that had been passed down to generations of ill-informed women.
For millions of viewers, it was the first time they heard the truth about why their bras caused them so much relentless misery.
“For the first time women heard that it’s not about your body being overweight or about buying a particular brand, it’s about getting the right fit and shape of bra,” Susan Nethero, founder of the Intimacy retail chain and the bra-fitting expert who appeared on the show, told Lingerie Talk. “This represented a major, major change.”
The first of many ‘bra makeovers’ on Oprah (and one of the most popular episodes in the series’ 25-year run), ‘Oprah’s Bra Intervention’ featured Nethero along with Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine, the style makeover gurus from the British TV hit What Not To Wear.
Five women of varying shapes and bust size were given makeovers that highlighted some of the universal mistakes seen by professional bra fitters. Once outfitted with a new foundation, the women emerged looking sleeker, with improved posture and radiating confidence. The audience roared in approval and envy.
“It was a moment in history,” Nethero said. “We were telling them that with the right bra they will feel great and feel rejuvenated as a consequence. Women were spellbound by it all.”
Oprah’s first public bra intervention made headlines around the world, as much for its indelicate subject matter, which was rarely discussed in mainstream media, as for its curious premise that women simply don’t know how to wear their bras.
Men found the subject comical and incomprehensible but women everywhere cringed with recognition. The Oprah show did what it had done so often before: tapped into a rich, overlooked vein of collective human experience that had been buried in shame and ignorance for generations.
When Oprah exclaimed “Change your bra, change your life!”, the words held an intuitive truth that resonated with women everywhere.
“Change your bra, change your life. … That slogan became a mantra,” Nethero said. “I would hear people talking about it as I walked down the street in New York.”
It also sent seismic tremors through the American bra industry that are still being felt 10 years later.
The economic impact of the show was staggering. The U.S. bra industry grew by $700-million — nearly 15% — in the 12 months after the first airing of Oprah’s bra intervention, with the boom touching every corner of the market from big brands to department stores to specialty boutiques. A 2006 study showed that U.S. women on average owned 6 bras; by 2012, they owned 9.
A few days after the show aired, Oprah called Susan Nethero “to say she could not believe the effect of the show.”
Producers immediately began planning a second show to air in November, which would be called Oprah’s Bra Revolution. For that episode, the TV set was transformed into ‘Oprah’s Bra Boutique’, Kirstie Alley was on hand for a celebrity bra makeover, the Dove Real Beauty team modeled bra styles and fashion retailer Nordstrom showed up with 8,000 bras and did professional fittings for every woman in the audience.
Suddenly, something as personal and intimate as bra shopping had become must-watch TV. In the years that followed, Oprah included a ‘Bra Revolution’ episode each spring while copycat segments popped up on innumerable rival talk shows, in fashion magazines and even on local news broadcasts.
Brands like Chantelle, Freya, Prima Donna, Felina and Wacoal enjoyed the same kind of priceless free publicity that helped turn Oprah’s Book Club selections into overnight bestsellers. And while the object of the shows was never to single out brands for special recognition, one brand — Le Mystère — hit the jackpot when Oprah declared its “Tisha” model to be her personal favorite, even inviting the bra’s (male) designer onto the program.
Meanwhile, lingerie brands everywhere leapt at the promotional opportunities and the extraordinary public demand for more and better information about bra sizing and fitting, shifting their marketing efforts to focus on fit expertise and consumer education.
Ironically, the subject of bra-fitting was never intended to be a topic for TV, especially on the world’s most successful talk show. At least not until members of Oprah’s team ran into Susan Nethero.
In early 2005, Nethero already had an impeccable reputation as a peerless bra fitter (she learned her craft from the Queen’s personal fit expert, June Kenton of Rigby & Peller) and was running two successful Intimacy stores in New York and Atlanta with her husband David.
The overall bra-fitting profession, however, was in decline. U.S. department stores, once the go-to shopping destination for women’s undergarments, were moving away from expensive, hands-on fit service in the race to keep up with self-serve fast-fashion retailers. Professional bra-fitters were a kind of throwback to an earlier time of privilege and indulgence, once as common (but now as rare) as men’s tailors. Finding a professional, trained bra expert in 2005 typically meant visiting one of those high-end independent specialty boutiques — and who had the time (or money) for that?
Nethero, who founded Intimacy in 1992, was a tireless promoter of the notion that a good bra was the foundation of a woman’s self-esteem and wanted nothing more than for all women to share in that life-changing knowledge. And she was determined to spread the word.
“My personal desire and love was for every woman to feel confident about their own body,” she said. “Bra fitting can become a catalyst for change in women’s lives, but we had to show women, one at a time.”
Nethero set out to “tell the right story about fit” by inviting fashion magazine editors to visit Intimacy for a free bra fitting — and a bit of proselytizing. Intimacy staff fit more than 60 fashion editors in a three-month period in early 2005, including a group of staffers from Oprah’s O magazine.
The magazine was so impressed with the experience it committed to run a feature article, called The Bra Revolution, in its July issue and arranged to do a photoshoot with 6 average women, showing before-and-after pictures. To turn the article into a valuable resource for O‘s readers, Nethero volunteered to use the Intimacy website to list 90 U.S. stores where women could find a reliable bra fitter.
Then came what Nethero says was “the most exciting call I ever had in my life.”
O editor Gayle King, Oprah’s long-time friend, “was completely blown away” by the before-and-after photos and passed the story on to her colleagues on the TV show, who told Nethero they wanted to bring the topic — and her expertise — to the Oprah stage in time for Mother’s Day and ahead of the planned magazine feature.
“We convinced the people at O magazine that it wasn’t about the perfect bra, it was about providing fit service for all women so they could become more confident about their bodies,” she said. “The idea that your foundation had to be right in order for your clothes to look right — we were able to convince them that this was a story worth telling.”
Oprah herself ultimately became evangelical about the value of a proper bra fitting, and shared her own horror stories about bad bra experiences with her TV audience. But at the time of the first bra intervention she hadn’t yet had her first professional fitting session (although the Intimacy team conducted personal fit sessions with about 60 members of her staff).
Nethero, who went on to appear in five Oprah episodes, gave the star her first fitting backstage after the May taping, then sent Oprah a basket of bras to try on — with the size tags removed.
“Two weeks later she called me and said ‘You cut the tags out!’ How do I know what size these are?’
“I didn’t want her to stress or worry about size,” Nethero said. “It’s not the number that matters, it’s the fit. Women are terrified of being over a D cup. The average woman wants to be a C cup.”
Indeed, when Oprah talked about her eye-opening bra-fitting experience in the November show, she admitted: “I thought only strippers were Ds!”
Oprah’s own misconceptions — and insecurities — about bra sizing were extremely familiar to Nethero, who used her time on the first TV bra intervention to identify common myths and mistakes about bras that women have clung to for decades. At the root of everything, she says, is women’s withering body-image issues and instinctive tendency to blame themselves when their clothes don’t look good.
“Women are their own worst critics,” she said. “They blamed their bodies for the fit problems they had. They didn’t think it was a bra industry problem, they thought it was their fault.”
Nethero gave Oprah’s TV audience a rundown of the 10 most persistent myths about bra fit and sizing:
Where should your breasts “sit”? (Midway between your shoulders and elbows.) … Your bust should be positioned inside your body frame, not “spreading east and west.” … Cup sizes don’t stay the same as band size increases; they grow proportionately. … Bras shouldn’t cause neck or back pain. … Bulging back fat is the bra’s fault, not yours. … A woman’s bra size will change six times during her lifetime.
For many viewers, Nethero’s primer on bra fitting was a revelation. But the biggest takeaway from the episode was her exposé on bra band sizes.
“The top myth was that a bra should fit loosely in order to be comfortable,” she said. “A lot of other myths stem from that faulty concept. Most women believe that comfort is associated with looseness. But the truth is a bra needs to fit firmly to lift and support.”
Based on that simple truth, most women needed to go up one cup size and down one band size to get a decent fit.
In fact, Nethero and Oprah can be credited with creating the single most pervasive (and profitable) selling-point for bra companies around the world over the past 10 years — the endlessly repeated axiom that 85% of women are wearing the wrong bra. That familiar factoid might sound like cheap PR copy but in fact it’s based on painstaking research conducted by Nethero and her team on Intimacy store customers.
They began with a survey of 500 Atlanta women to identify common bra fit problems and then continued collecting data via online surveys. More than 700,000 women participated in what was then the largest study of bra problems ever conducted, and Intimacy posted all the resulting data on its website for other brands to plunder and re-package as they wished.
“Everybody thought I was crazy,” Nethero said.
But the groundbreaking Intimacy data revealed shocking truths about the failings of the American bra industry and “a huge lack of confidence” on the part of frustrated consumers.
Among the findings: The average woman only wears half the bras she buys. 55% of women don’t know what bras complement their body. Two-thirds of women had never had a bra fitting. Two-thirds were concerned about lack of comfort. Half of all women were miserable about back fat.
Just like the women it served, this was an industry in need of a makeover. And companies began paying attention: within a year of the first Oprah episode, Intimacy‘s website list of bra-fitting resources had grown to include 250 stores in 47 U.S. states and 6 Canadian provinces.
Her time in Oprah’s glittering orbit also sent Nethero’s career, business and personal reputation into the stratosphere.
Oprah had introduced her as “the best cleavage cop in the business” and Nethero was later dubbed “the bra whisperer” by fashion gadfly Carson Kressley on How To Look Good Naked. She became a familiar guest on other talk shows like Tyra, Dr. Oz, Today and Rosie!, where lifelong bra hater Rosie O’Donnell cried on her shoulder and asked Nethero to be her life coach. Nethero’s book, Bra Talk: Myths and Facts, which Oprah’s producers urged her to write in time for the November 2005 ‘Bra Revolution’ episode, became a bestseller that is still in print today.
At Nethero’s stores, business exploded. The Intimacy website logged 1.6 million visitors in the month after the first Oprah show and, by the time the O magazine article appeared in July, customers were waiting up to eight hours for a personal bra fitting.
(That was a far cry from Intimacy‘s early days, when Nethero had to remove the locks on dressing room doors because too many self-conscious customers were mortified at the thought of sales staff seeing them undressed. “People were so afraid,” she said. “They would lock us out, then we couldn’t help them.”)
The post-Oprah bump was “an incredible time for us,” Nethero said. “Our personnel ran around the clock. It was the most amazing life experience one could have.”
Oprah had boasted that Nethero and Intimacy‘s staff had fit 100,000 women for bras, but today that number is in the millions.
But far more important to Nethero than her own personal or financial gain was the profound impact that Oprah’s bra revolution had on the women who visited Intimacy stores, especially those who were discovering bra-fitting for the first time.
“It was like peeling back layers. You got to look at yourself in the mirror and see your confidence. It was the first important step to taking care of themselves,” she said.
“It was great for the economy but it was greater to see women begin to feel good about themselves and taking better care of themselves.
“Women were buying more clothes. Men would come into the store and say their wives felt so much better about themselves. It resulted in healthier relationships.”
And, she added, “telling this story has certainly kept me youthful.”
The Intimacy chain expanded dramatically to 16 stores and in 2012, 20 years after launching the business, Susan and David sold controlling interest in the chain to Belgian megabrand Van de Velde, which owns the Prima Donna, Marie Jo and Andres Sarda labels. In January of this year, the Netheros sold their remaining shares to Van De Velde, although Susan, now residing in Atlanta, still acts as an adviser to the company and visits New York one week each month.
The bra industry is all about offering solutions to everyday problems that all women deal with. So it is perhaps surprising that, after a decade of education and innovation, women in 2015 still face many of the same challenges that Oprah set out to address.
“The potential is still as great as it was 10 years ago,” Nethero said. “The hype around it isn’t as great today as it was then, but the need is just as great.
“They have more answers than they had in the past, but women still have body-image issues and that precludes them from taking action. Women tend to put others’ needs before their own. You have to convince them that they are worth it.”
Professional bra fitters, meanwhile, face a new challenge — competing with online e-commerce operations that use photo scanning and other digital technologies to measure women for bras and hopefully replicate the bra-fitting experience.
Surprisingly, the woman who has probably fit more customers for bras than anyone else isn’t hostile to the idea of online tools, saying “a blend of solutions” is best, especially for younger shoppers who are comfortable with online ordering.
“I don’t think it’ll provide a better service, but it might be an improvement for some women and I’m okay with that,” she said.
“But ultimately the companies that work one-on-one will do better because women have a difficult problem self-selecting,” she added.
“Plus, it’s hard to judge a person’s needs without being there to see. We always learned something when we saw her in person that we would not have known otherwise.”
NOTE: Now in the “third chapter” of her professional life, Susan Nethero today holds the title of CEO Emerita at Intimacy and works as a speaker, mentor and marketing strategist based in Atlanta. She is the managing director of the Golden Seeds Angel Investor Network, which supports women entrepreneurs, works on philanthropic causes and sits on several corporate advisory boards. She is still passionate about the importance of a good bra.